Born George Alan O’Dowd on June 14, 1961, in Eltham, London, to parents Gerry and Dinah O’Dowd. George grew up in a lively household with his four brothers and one sister. Despite being part of the large working class Irish brood, George claims he had a lonely childhood, referring to himself as the “pink sheep” of the family.
To stand out in the male-dominated household, George created his own image on which he became dependent. “It didn’t bother me to walk down the street and to be stared at. I loved it,” he later reminisced.
George didn’t exactly conform to the typical school student stereotype, either. With a leaning more toward arts rather than science and math, he found it hard to fit within traditional masculine stereotypes. With his schoolwork suffering, and an ongoing battle of wits between him and his teachers, it wasn’t long before the school gave up and expelled George over his increasingly outlandish behavior and outrageous clothes and make-up.
Suddenly George found himself out of school, and without a job. He took any work he could find that paid him enough money to live on including a job picking fruit; a stint as a milliner; and even a gig as a make-up artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he picked up some handy techniques for his own personal use.
By the 1980s, the New Romantic Movement had emerged in the U.K. Followers of the New Romantic period, influenced heavily by artists such as David Bowie, often dressed in grand caricatures of the 19th century English Romantic period. This included exaggerated upscale hairstyles and fashion statements. Men typically wore androgynous clothing and makeup, such as eyeliner.
The style became a calling card for George, whose flamboyance fit their beliefs perfectly. The attention the New Romantics attracted inevitably created many new headlines for the press. It wasn’t long before George was giving interviews based purely on his appearance.
George’s outrageous style caught the attention of Malcolm McLaren, the manager of the infamous punk group Sex Pistols. McLaren was also managing a group called Bow Wow Wow, which was fronted by Burmese sixteen-year-old Annabella Lwin. McLaren felt he needed someone to give Lwin a bit more stage and vocal presence, so he arranged for George to perform with the group.
George made a few appearances to much audience acclaim, and inevitable friction between the two big personalities began to surface. However George, by now, felt inspired to form his own group. The answer came in the form of The Sex Gang Children. Bassist Mikey Craig and drummer Jon Moss were next to join the group, followed by Roy Hay. The group soon abandoned their original name, instead settling on Culture Club. The name was a joke in reference to the group members’ various backgrounds: George was Irish, Craig was Jamaican and British, Moss was Jewish, and Hay was an Englishman.
Success came early. The band signed with Virgin Records in the U.K. and Epic Records in America, releasing their debut album, Kissing To Be Clever, in 1982. It was their third single from that album, “Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?” that scored a huge success for the group. The song reached the No. 1 spot in 16 different countries.
Culture Club already had the distinction of being the first group since the Beatles to have three songs from their debut album become top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100. The group’s second album, Colour By Numbers (1983) was also a success, with the single “Karma Chameleon” rocketing to the No. 1 spot in numerous countries including the U.S., where it stayed for four weeks.
George soon became a household name, making him a natural choice for one of the lead vocals on the Band Aid single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984. However the pressure of fame began to take its toll, and by late 1985 George had developed an addiction to heroin. Culture Club began to lose their way musically. Work on their fourth album From Luxury To Heartache (1986) proved to be a headache as recording sessions dragged on for hours.
In July of that same year, George was arrested in the U.K. for possession of cannabis. A few days later, the band’s keyboardist, Michael Rudetski, was found dead in George’s home. The coroner’s report revealed that he had suffered a heroin overdose.
During his time in Culture Club, George embarked on a relationship with drummer Jon Moss, and he has claimed that some of the songs he wrote during this period were aimed at Moss directly. The pair’s romance did not last though, with speculation that Moss had broken off his engagement to a woman to be with George, but was never entirely comfortable in a homosexual relationship. Moss has since gone on to marry a woman and have several children.
Clearly the much-hyped furor over the band peaked too early and in late 1986, after their U.S. tour was canceled, Culture Club disbanded. Despite his ongoing battles with drug addiction, George began recording his first solo album. In 1987 Sold was released as a major success, but George never really managed to duplicate the same level of exposure in the U.S.
Over the years, George continued to release various solo albums and even formed his own record label in the early 90s. His most significant acclaim during the 90s was his 1992 hit single “The Crying Game,” which featured in the film of the same name. The song reached the top 20 on the U.S. charts.
After a fall out with Virgin Records in the mid 90s, George’s work was poorly promoted and subsequently failed to alight any kind of praise. Culture Club reunited briefly back in 1998 at the Big Rewind tour in America alongside Human League, and later the same year managed to secure a top five single in the U.K. with “I Just Wanna Be Loved.”
In 2006, the band decided to again reunite; however, George declined to join them for this tour. As a result, he was replaced. After only one showcase and one live show, the project was shelved.
Although George failed to reach the same level of acclaim as a solo artist in comparison to the Culture Club days, he has fared better in his second career as a notable music DJ. He began DJing in the early 1990s and has since enjoyed critical acclaim both here in the UK and in the US.
In 2002, George was joined by a hoard of celebrities for the premiere of his new musical, Taboo. The star had penned the story of his own rise to fame, including colorful characters from his past. The musical featured a host of new songs written by George as well as Culture Club’s No. 1 singles, “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?” and “Karma Chameleon.” Open auditions were held to find actors and singers that resemble the stars of the 80s. Scottish actor Euan Morton won the part of the dread-locked George. Matt Lucas, at the time most famed for his George Dawes character on BBC’s Shooting Stars, took the role of flamboyant performance artist Leigh Bowery, who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.
American comedienne Rosie O’Donnell saw the musical and was so enamored that she decided to finance the production for Broadway, too. The show opened in February 2003 but after just 100 performances it closed, hampered by a barrage of negative reviews and struggles to meet financial ends. The U.K. production, however, continued to be a success. A DVD release and book accompanied the play.
Boy George’s demons have gained ongoing media attention after his drug problems came to light in the 80s. In 2005, nearly 10 years after his first public drug expose, George was arrested in Manhattan on suspicion of possessing cocaine after it was found in his apartment.
After failing to appear in court the following year for the same drugs charge, a judge issued a warrant for his arrest. George’s no-show for his initial court date resulted in a $1,000 fine and a spell of community service. In August 2006, George reported for trash duty on the streets of New York, making the media’s day with snaps of the usually flamboyant star in combats and trainers with a broom and disposable gloves.
It seems picking up trash in the public eye wasn’t enough to keep George on the right side of the law. In November 2007, he was sent to trial on charges for falsely imprisoning a male escort by chaining him to a wall. The alleged incident had taken place at his flat in Hackney earlier in the year. On January 16, 2009, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for the offence. Initially he was sent to HMP Pentonville in London and was later transferred to HMP Edmunds Hill in Newmarket, Suffolk, to serve out his time.